Is our democracy under threat? And what can be done to revive the flagging interest in politics? These were the questions fiercely debated when readers of The Independent gathered at Manchester's Victorian Gothic Town Hall.
In an impassioned exchange of views, a 200-strong audience quizzed a panel of the newspaper's columnists and politicians, past and present, over issues ranging from MPs' expenses to the rise of the British National Party.
First to speak at Independent Live!, the second in a series of public debates, was the columnist Johann Hari, who railed against a "fundamentally undemocratic system" and called for individuals to stand up and demand change from their leaders.
"We have a Government with 100 per cent of the power which was elected with only 35 per cent of the vote fighting for the support of a tiny minority in Middle England," said Hari. "The rest of us do not count – whether we are on the left or the right," he added, urging people to join pressure groups such as Greenpeace or Plane Stupid to make their voices heard.
The former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton reminded the audience that it was 40 years since Lord Hailsham warned of an elected dictatorship. He said the threats to democracy came largely from Brussels, and also criticised David Cameron's Tory party, saying that it was entering the next election as a "policy-free zone". Mr Hamilton said: "What do we know about what they will do after the next election? Precious little."
The novelist and columnist Howard Jacobson decried the "fetishistic" belief in the power of democracy – most grossly manifested when politicians were prepared to kill to impose it. He earned the biggest cheer of the night when he accusing the ruling classes of being boring. "More people vote for Strictly Come Dancing than at a general election and that is because it is more interesting – and it is not even that interesting."
It fell to Graham Stringer MP, a former leader of Manchester City Council, to defend the system. He insisted democracy was not under threat and the public's reaction to the MPs' expenses scandal proved that: voters want an election in order to "kick the rascals out".
Anger and puzzlement against MPs were eloquently expressed by audience members including Jo Fenton, a former child welfare worker, who demanded to know what MPs were for when so few bothered to turn up to crucial debates. Cath Birtwistle, a primary school teacher, decried the attacks on civil liberties in Britain and particularly the need to run extra security checks on school visitors, which she said would damage the quality of a child's education.
The Independent's managing director, Simon Kelner, said that the press played a vital role in the nation's political life. "We feel passionately that newspapers – as a forum for debate and a way of providing light rather than heat and for monitoring the corridors of power – remain a powerful medium and will be here to stay," he said.
The next Independent Live! will take place at The IndependentWoodstock Literary Festival on 17 September, when the issue under discussion will be: "Does reality TV debase modern culture?"
Download and listen to and podcasts from Independent Live! at www.independent.co.uk/liveReuse content